Monday November 1st, 2010

The Arizona Cardinals scored 35 points Sunday in a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It marked their season high, was more than double their previous average and was a rare treat for the hometown fans at University of Phoenix Stadium.

If the current BCS standings hold true, those fans could see that many points by the end of the first quarter on Jan. 10.

With Nebraska toppling previously undefeated Missouri and Iowa clubbing previously undefeated Michigan State, the clutter surrounding BCS No. 1 Oregon (8-0) and No. 2 Auburn (9-0) is dissipating. What the two lacked in drama Saturday, they made up for in scoreboard wattage (Oregon 53, USC 32; Auburn 51, Ole Miss 31) as they set their sights on Glendale.

The title picture has actually become pretty clear. The Ducks (who jumped Auburn in the BCS standings this week) and Tigers control their own destinies. Alabama (7-1), which is already back up to No. 6 in the BCS, would likely take Auburn's place with an Iron Bowl win and an SEC title. That means it will take an Oregon loss to open the door for 7-0 Boise State, 9-0 TCU or 8-0 Utah. After watching the quick-strike Ducks yet again hang half-a-hundred on USC, it's becoming increasingly difficult to envision that happening.

Despite their defensive deficiencies, the Trojans actually did a decent job of keeping pace with Oregon. After going up 32-29 early in the third quarter, they made the Ducks earn their points on the two long (by Oregon standards) touchdown drives that ensued. This is an Oregon team that's yet to score less than 42 points in a game despite ranking 115th in the country in time of possession.

But yet again, Oregon found itself in total command in the fourth quarter, stifling any hope of a comeback with an underrated defense that's allowed just seven points in the final period all season. Chip Kelly won't say how his team does it ("It's like the secret to Coke," he joked), but there's a pretty logical explanation: The defense practices at the same tempo as the offense. While the other team naturally tires over the course of a game, Oregon's defenders may well feel rejuvenated.

"I've really seen a difference in two weeks," USC coach Lane Kiffin said of his own defense's improved endurance after simulating Oregon's tempo in practice. "I can only imagine the effect [the practice tempo] has had on Oregon in two years."

The other thing that's been striking about the Ducks is the balance they've displayed the past two weeks. Unlike Kelly's past teams, which leaned more heavily on the run, Oregon killed UCLA through the air two weeks ago. On Saturday, LaMichael James ran for 239 yards and three touchdowns while Darron Thomas threw for 288 yards and four touchdowns, three of them to go-to guy Jeff Maehl.

Auburn, for its part, made some strides to improve its own balance on Saturday. In recent weeks, Cam Newton and the Tigers have run, run and run some more against their opponents, and with good reason: Nobody could stop them. (They ran for 440 yards on LSU, for crying out loud!) Saturday night in Oxford, however, Newton only ran for -- brace for this -- 45 yards. No matter. He went 18-of-24 for 209 yards and two touchdowns and -- as if he hasn't shown off enough -- made a leaping 20-yard touchdown catch in the back of the end zone on a pass from Wildcat quarterback Kodi Burns.

Auburn put up its usual 572 yards in the rout.

"They were making [Newton] throw the football,'' said the Tigers' offensive guru, Gus Malzahn. "We've been saying all along we have other guys who can do a solid job, and they did that."

We're a long way from Oregon-Auburn actually happening. The Ducks finish the season against Arizona, the Pac-10's top defensive team, and rival Oregon State. The Tigers have to face ... you know, the defending national champs.

If they do both make it to Glendale, it will be an interesting statement on college football in 2010. Kelly and Malzahn happen to be the nation's two most respected authorities when it comes to the no-huddle. Oregon has run more plays in less time than any team in the country. This Auburn squad has actually moved a little slower than Malzahn's past teams, but largely because it's run the ball so often and had to milk the clock in several close fourth-quarter games.

The axiom is that defense wins championships, but Oregon hasn't had to win a game that way. By nearly any statistical measure, Auburn's defense is well below that of past title teams (57th nationally). It's a testament to Newton and the offense that the Tigers have still won so may close games.

If we end up with an Auburn-Oregon title game, expect half the coaches in the country to install the no-huddle offense next spring. Or, to go searching for 6-foot-6 quarterbacks who can run, catch and throw for touchdowns.

Historically, TCU and Utah have almost nothing in common. They've only been members of the same conference since 2005 (excluding a three-year stint together in the WAC in the late '90s), and even that relationship will end when the Utes join the Pac-10 next season. In the meantime, however, they'll stage their most significant Mountain West clash to date when the No. 4 Horned Frogs (9-0) visit No. 6 Utah (8-0) on Saturday.

"Ever since they joined the league, it's been a competitive situation," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said Sunday. "Coach Patterson and I are both defensive guys, and there are a lot of parallels between the two programs. We've had some big ones in the past, but I'm fairly certain neither of us have been ranked this highly at the same time going into this game."

Correct. In 2008, Utah was ranked 10th, TCU 11th, when the 9-0 Utes scored on a last-minute touchdown to beat the 9-1 Horned Frogs, 13-10. They went on to finish 13-0 and No. 2 in the final polls. Last year, fourth-ranked TCU throttled 16th-ranked Utah, 55-28, in Fort Worth en route to the Fiesta Bowl.

This year's edition features what both fan bases believe to be their best teams yet. TCU has been as dominant as one might expect for a veteran team coming off a 12-1 season. The Frogs' defense is allowing just 8.7 points per game, while the emergence of tailback Ed Wesley (104.2 yards per game) has made quarterback Andy Dalton and the offense that much more dangerous. The Frogs aren't flashy, but they don't need to be considering the defense rarely gives up touchdowns.

Utah's marked improvement from last year's 10-3 finish has been a bit more surprising, though it probably shouldn't be considering the program has long since demonstrated its considerable talent level (10 NFL draft picks over the past two years). Quarterback Jordan Wynn missed two games, but returned in time to lead a 68-27 rout at Iowa State. The offense struggled Saturday in a 28-23 win at Air Force, but the defense made two fourth-down stops in the fourth quarter.

Whittingham didn't mind the scare. His team hadn't been tested by anyone since a 27-24 overtime win against Pittsburgh in Week 1, and the experience could come in handy against TCU. "We haven't had a team that's had better chemistry than these guys," Whittingham said. "This has probably been my most enjoyable year of coaching." Presumably, he'd enjoy giving TCU a going-away present even more.

This is getting serious, folks. Becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 1995 was one thing. But after Baylor's first victory at Texas since 1991 -- even if it did come against a slumping, bumbling Longhorns squad -- it's time to embrace the possibility that the Bears (7-2, 4-1 Big 12) could be three games away from playing for the Big 12 championship.

"We had some team goals in our initial meetings like everyone in Division I football," Bears coach Art Briles said Sunday. "[Reaching a bowl] was initially what our goal was. We've accomplished No. 1. Now we work on No. 2 -- representing the South."

Is this really happening? Is the coach of Baylor really talking with a straight face about wining a division title? Yes. And why shouldn't he? Rather than wilting as the stakes grow higher, the Bears seem to be getting better by the week. Saturday, they showed off their newfound balance in wiping out a 19-10 deficit to win 30-22, getting big plays both from star quarterback Robert Griffin III (219 passing yards and a 20-yard touchdown run) and running back Jay Finley (a 69-yard touchdown).

"The tide has changed," Griffin said afterward. "This year, we're the team to beat."

Realistically, No. 11 Oklahoma (7-1) and No. 19 Oklahoma State (7-1) are still the teams to beat. Baylor has to go to Stillwater next weekend before hosting Texas A&M (5-3) and the Sooners. But Briles has upgraded the program's talent and depth considerably, and even if the Bears get just one more victory to finish 8-4, he should be up for every coach of the year award in existence.

For years, skeptics suggested that perhaps the Big 12 should kick out Baylor. The Bears have gone either 0-8 or 1-7 in conference play in all but three seasons since the league's 1996 inception. Remember, Baylor was fortunate to even be included in the conference, and was a beneficiary of some friendly Texas politicians. This year, it's got a better chance than any of the other Big 12 Texas schools of winning the conference.

Each week, I'll update my projected BCS lineup (as necessary) based on the latest week's games:

Title game: Oregon vs. Alabama

Rose: Wisconsin vs. Utah

Fiesta: Nebraska vs. Pittsburgh

Orange: Virginia Tech vs. Ohio State

Sugar: Auburn vs. Boise State

The assumption all season has been that if Boise State doesn't reach the title game, it will land in the Rose Bowl as the highest ranked non-AQ team. But in the latest BCS standings, TCU has edged ahead of the Broncos. So where would Boise land if it got shut out of both Glendale and Pasadena? It would most likely be the scenario that's laid out here -- which would actually be kind of awesome. Paranoid Auburn fans have taken to the Web and radio talk shows en masse lately to voice their disgust with Boise State's existence. It's kind of bizarre -- but the possibility of them facing each other in a BCS bowl is pretty fantastic.

Meanwhile, it will continue to be a weekly guessing game trying to project the Big Ten champion, but from what I can tell the Badgers stand the best chance in most tiebreaker scenarios because they beat both Ohio State and Iowa and they're now ranked higher than Michigan State in the BCS standings. Of course, the Buckeyes could still move back ahead of the Badgers with a win over Iowa and a Wisconsin loss.

• From Roger Craig to Mike Rozier to Ahman Green, more than a few great running backs have donned the Nebraska uniform. Roy Helu Jr. topped them all Saturday, rushing for a school-record 307 yards on 28 carries in the Huskers' 31-17 win over previously undefeated Missouri. Helu has always been considered an elite talent, but had never come close to a game like this; his previous career high was 169 yards against Virginia Tech early last season. "He was a war daddy today," said receiver Niles Paul.

• Penn State's previously dreadful offense racked up 41 points and 435 yards to hand Michigan (5-3) its third straight loss. Evan Royster (150 yards, two TDs) broke the school's career rushing record and quarterback Matt McGloin was solid in a spot start. "We're doing a good job of making a lot of [opposing] quarterbacks look pretty good," said Rich Rodriguez. Pardon the Wolverine faithful if they don't laugh. If Rodriguez doesn't beat Illinois and Purdue the next two weeks, he won't be back. Period.

• One might assume Miami's Randy Shannon is on similarly thin ice after an embarrassing loss to Virginia -- in which quarterback Jacory Harris went down early -- dropped the 'Canes to 5-3, but not according to the Miami Herald. "If they win eight games every year, as long as the kids keep graduating and stay out of trouble, that's most important to [president] Donna [Shalala],'' a board of trustees member told the paper. A school president with sensible priorities? That won't go over well with fans.

• Meanwhile Maryland's Ralph Friedgen, a guy who was presumed to be on the hot seat coming into the year, has his team off to the quietest 6-2 start in the country. That's probably because the Terps' ACC victories have come against 2-6 Duke, 3-5 Boston College and 2-6 Wake Forest, the latter of which Maryland destroyed 62-14 on Saturday. Still, after bouncing back from a 2-10 campaign to get the Terps bowl eligible for the seventh time in 10 seasons, the Fridge will be back in 2011.

• Remember when Texas A&M's Jerrod Johnson was the Big 12's preseason Offensive Player of the Year? Now he's the second-best quarterback on his own team after junior Ryan Tannehill -- making his first career start -- threw for a school-record 449 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-27 win over Texas Tech. Tannehill's ascension comes at the expense of Johnson, who'd started 28 straight games and became the school's alltime total offense leader last week.

• South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore was back at full strength Saturday against Tennessee, and it showed. The freshman, who was injured in the Gamecocks' loss at Kentucky two weeks ago and missed last week's Vanderbilt game, returned to rush 29 times for 184 yards and a touchdown in a 38-24 win. Afterward, he admitted that, "I kind of add [the yards] up in my head when I'm running." Well, he must have lost track. "I thought I had like 150, but it's cool."

• In losing 41-0 at home to No. 13 Stanford, Washington suffered its first home shutout since 1976, gained its fewest yards (107) since 1973 and never crossed the Cardinal's 42-yard-line. A season that began with hopes of a bowl berth is going down in flames for Washington (3-5), while Mel Kiper's former projected No. 1 draft pick, Jake Locker (7-of-14, 64 yards, two interceptions), is dealing with sore ribs and a thigh bruise and suffering through a nightmarish senior season.

• Another guy who began the year on Heisman watch lists, Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder, suffered his own indignity last Thursday night. After leading his team 63 yards to get down to within four yards of a winning score at N.C. State, Ponder fumbled a play-action fake to tailback Ty Jones, which N.C. State's Nate Irving recovered with 48 seconds left to preserve a 28-24 win. The Wolfpack (6-2, 3-1 ACC) now control their own destiny in the ACC Atlantic.

• What exactly happens to the Cal Bears when they leave the friendly confines of Berkeley? Following their 35-7 loss at Oregon State, the Bears (4-4, 2-3 Pac-10) have been outscored 141-62 in four road losses. At home, however, they're 4-0, winning those games by a combined margin of 189-34. "It's a little ridiculous," Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan told the Oakland Tribune. Quarterback Kevin Riley suffered a knee injury in the loss and, pending an MRI, could be out for the season.

• It's no secret West Virginia's gosh-darn nice-guy coach Bill Stewart was a questionable hire from day one, yet he managed to go 9-4 each of his first two seasons. But without a veteran quarterback, WVU's once-explosive offense has crumbled. In a 16-13 overtime loss at UConn last Friday, the Mountaineers (5-3, 1-2 Big East) fumbled seven times, losing four. "We gave a valiant effort," said Stewart, "but I am not proud of how we handled the ball."

• Georgia's redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray looked brilliant in leading a second-half comeback against Florida and has the makings of a future star. Unfortunately, his interception in overtime doomed the Bulldogs. Florida's quarterback future remains muddled, as Saturday's offensive resurgence (444 yards) involved rotating John Brantley and Trey Burton, but the Gators are clearly more explosive with speedsters Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey back in the mix.

• Move over, Kyle Singler. Duke has another star on its hands in quarterback Sean Renfree, who was a staggering 28-of-30 for 314 yards in the Blue Devils' 34-31 win over Navy. Coach David Cutcliffe has long been high on the sophomore, but nearly had to bench him after Renfree threw nine interceptions in his past three games. This time, Renfree was turnover-free. "I'm really proud that he took care of the ball," said Cutcliffe. "I could have told you before the game he was going to do that."

• The most remarkable factoid I've seen in a long time, courtesy of Daily Oklahoman beat writer Jake Trotter: Texas coach Mack Brown has lost more home games this season (three) than Bob Stoops has in his 13-year Oklahoma career (two).

• Speaking of the Sooners, receiver Ryan Broyles broke the school's single-game receiving record with 208 yards and three touchdowns on nine catches against Colorado. Two of the nation's top three receivers -- Broyles and Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon -- currently play in the state of Oklahoma.

• UCF (6-2, 4-0 C-USA) took control of Conference USA with its first win over East Carolina (5-3, 4-1) in five years. George O'Leary's team has won 10 straight league contests dating to last season.

• San Diego State (6-2) became bowl-eligible for the first time since 1998 with a 48-38 win over Wyoming. You've done it again, Brady Hoke.

• You know those gimmicky Nike "Pro Combat" uniforms? It's way more awesome when Army wears combat-themed uniforms.

As I wrote Saturday, I'm not sure I've seen a more depressing postgame image than that of Notre Dame's coaches and players singing the Alma Mater after a 28-27 loss to Tulsa. In the past, fans around the country reveled in the Irish's misfortunes, but unless you're a Tulsa fan, you'd have to be pretty heartless to take pleasure in the once-storied program's latest embarrassment, coming as it did just days after the death of student manager Declan Sullivan.

Among the faces NBC's cameras zoomed in on were Dayne Crist, the quarterback who suffered his second straight season-ending knee injury Saturday, and several members of what is now the losingest senior class in school history. And then there was first-year coach Brian Kelly, who ... well, who's got a lot to deal with right now.

As sportswriters, we're at least marginally qualified to criticize a coach's play-calling, including Kelly's decision to have freshman quarterback Tommy Rees throw to the end zone with 42 seconds left rather than protect the ball and let the ultrareliable David Ruffer kick a game-winning field goal. Rees threw into double coverage and was intercepted. Said Kelly: "We're going to call that play again and again. We didn't make it today. But in time we'll make that play."

What we're not remotely qualified to do is try to assign blame and responsibility for a young man's death without yet knowing all the facts or the results of a pending investigation -- but of course, that hasn't stopped some from rushing to judgment and doing that very thing.

In his first remarks since the accident, Kelly spoke after Saturday's game about his decision to practice outdoors Wednesday despite forecasts of heavy winds: "I made the decision that I felt it was productive and safe. We have systems in place to make certain and that deal with issues of safety. Clearly in this instance, they failed. We are in the process of examining all of those systems that are in place and looking for those answers."

Sullivan's death could have been avoided. On that, we can all agree. But right now it sure seems more important for the school and the public to support Sullivan's family, and for all schools to reexamine their safety procedures regarding those scissor lifts, than for people to immediately start calling for firings and resignations.

Nothing against the cheering faithful back home, but Syracuse coach Doug Marrone is enjoying life away from the Carrier Dome right now.

"It's almost been a little bit easier to play on the road," said Marrone, the former Syracuse offensive lineman whose team has won consecutive conference road games over USF, West Virginia and Cincinnati to improve to 6-2 for the first time since 2001. "A lot of the people that love you the most distract you the most."

A lot of folks back in Syracuse are loving their second-year head coach right now. In an otherwise miserable season for the Big East, Syracuse's surprising breakthrough after winning just four league games the past five seasons has been an extremely encouraging sign for the conference, which badly needs the school of Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Don McPherson and Donovan McNabb to become relevant again.

The Orange are doing it with defense, allowing an average of just 10 points in their three conference wins, including Saturday's 31-7 win over the two-time defending league champion Bearcats. Syracuse ranks 13th nationally in total defense and is allowing its fewest yards per game (298.5) since 1997 thanks in large part to veteran linebackers Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue, both of whom are converted running backs with a good mix of size and speed. Smith intercepted a pass near the goal line Saturday and returned it 60 yards.

Syracuse needs one more win to become bowl eligible because it beat two FCS foes (Maine and Colgate), and its success in the downtrodden Big East must be taken in proper context -- it got crushed 41-20 at Washington in the second week of the season and 45-14 to Pittsburgh two weeks ago. But, "We are 6-2, and we are what we are," said Marrone. "We haven't really accomplished our goal yet, which was to have a winning season and go to a bowl game. Are we close? Yes."

Closer than they've been in six years.

Mini-previews for three of this week's big games:

TCU at Utah, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Sit back and enjoy as two of the fastest teams in the country duke it out in what could be the difference between a BCS bowl berth or a Maaco Bowl berth. Both teams will try to establish the run, but it might be rough sledding against two of the nation's top 15 rushing defenses.

Alabama at LSU, Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET): Want to get all those pesky fans off your back, Les Miles? There's a simple solution: Beat Nick Saban. Miles has been living in Saban's shadow for five years, but has come close to derailing the Tide each of the past two seasons. The matchup to watch: Julio Jones vs. Patrick Peterson.

Arizona at Stanford, Saturday (10:15 p.m. ET): While we're rushing to anoint Oregon, don't forget that the Wildcats still have a chance to play for the Pac-10 title on Nov. 26 in Eugene. But they'll need to win this one first, which is no small chore considering the way Stanford's been playing. A possible BCS at-large berth remains in play as well.

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